Privacy and cloud computing

This content is 14 years old and may not reflect reality today nor the author’s current opinion. Please keep its age in mind as you read it.

There has been a good deal of talk of late on the important topic of security and privacy in relation to cloud computing. Indeed there are some legitimate concerns and some work that needs to be done in this area in general, but I’m going to focus today on the latter term (indeed they are distinct – as a CISSP security is my forte but I will talk more on this separately):

Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively.

Traditionally privacy has been maintained by physically controlling access to sensitive data, be it by hiding one’s diary under one’s mattress through installation of elaborate security systems. Access is then selectively restricted to trusted associates as required, often without surrendering physical control over the object. In a world of 1’s and 0’s it’s a similar story, only involving passwords, encryption, access control lists, etc.

Occasionally however we do need to surrender information to others in order to transact and as part of everyday life; be it to apply for a drivers license or passport, or subscribe to a commercial service. In doing so we hope that they (‘the controller’ in European Union parlance) will take care of it as it were their own, but this is rarely the case unless economics and/or regulations dictate:

Externalisation leaves the true cost of most breaches to be borne by the data subject rather than the controller; the victim rather than the perpetrator.

Currently even the largest breaches go relatively unpunished, in that corporations typically only face limited reputational damage and (depending on the jurisdiction) the cost of notifying victims, while the affected individuals themselves can face permanent financial ruin and associated problems. According to the Data Loss Database, only days ago arrests were made over 11,000,000 records copied by a call center worker, and the hall off shame is topped by TJX with almost 100m customer records (including credit card numbers). Often though the data is simply ‘lost’, on a device or backup media which has been stolen, misplaced or sold on eBay.

Personal information has similar properties to nuclear waste; few attributes are transient (account balance), most have long half-lives (address, telephone) many can outlive the owner (SSN) and some are by definition immutable (DoB, eye colour).

In an environment of rampent consumer credit being foisted on us by credit providers who have little in the way of authentication beyond name, address and date of birth these losses can be devastating. This imbalance will need to be leveled by lawmakers (for example by imposing a per-record penalty for losses that would transform minor annoyances into serious financial disincentives), but this is tangential to the special case of cloud computing, rather serving to give background into the prevalent issues.

Cloud computing is relatively immune to traditional privacy breaches; there is no backup media to lose, laptop based databases to steal, unencrypted or unauthenticated connections to sniff or hijack, etc.

The fact is that many (likely most) of these breaches could have been avoided in a cloud computing environment. Data is stored ‘in the cloud’ and accessed by well authenticated users over well secured connections. Authentication is typically via passwords and/or tokens (we even have a prototype smart card authentication product) and encryption usually over Transport Layer Security (TLS), centrally enforced by the cloud applications and cloud services. A well configured cloud computing architecture (with a secure client supporting strong authentication and encryption) is a hacker’s worst nightmare. Granted we still have some tweaking to do (eg the extended validation certificates farce) but the attack surface area can be reduced to a single port (tcp/443) which is extremely antisocial until it is satisfied that you are who you say you are (and vice versa).

A well configured cloud computing architecture is a hacker’s worst nightmare. Conversely, a poorly configured cloud computing architecture is a hacker’s best dream.

On the other hand, one of the best ways to keep information safe is not to collect it in the first place; by consolidating the data the reward for a successful attack increases significantly. Fortunately the defenses typically improve at least proportionally, with vendors (whose businesses are built on trust) deploying armies of security boffins that an individual entity could only dream of. The risk is similar to that of a monoculture, the same term that has been used to describe the Windows monopoly (and we have seen the effects of this in the form of massive distributed botnets); the Irish can tell you why putting all your eggs in one basket is a particularly bad idea.

In summary the potential for enhanced privacy protection in a cloud computing environment is clear, provided the risks are properly and carefully mitigated. We are making good progress in this area and overall the news is good, but we need to tread carefully and keep a very close eye on the spectre of ubiquitous surveillance (Big Brother), large scale privacy breaches and targeted attacks.

Cloud computing has the technology and many of the systems in place already; now it is up to the lawmakers to step up to the plate.